How to Apply to Graduate School: Find a Mentor

3Feb2013aToday’s post will be a short one, though I do have probably another seven or eight installments planned for this series. Today’s tip is probably the most useful (or was in my case) and I think that if you have a lot of anxiety about graduate school, like I described in a previous post, then taking this step might help to assuage your nerves.

I have a friend who is terrified of her professors. She’ll send them the occasional e-mail with a question, but in general she prefers not to talk in class or visit office hours. As a shy person myself, I can totally understand her position. However, some of the scariest professors I’ve ever had have also been some of the nicest when I caught them alone in their offices.

If you’re finishing up your junior year of college, you probably know of a few professors you like. When I was first toying with the idea of graduate school, I visited not only the department’s graduate studies director, but also my undergraduate advisor. I dropped by some of my favorite professors’ offices and asked them about their experiences with graduate school.

Finding a mentor (or several) is a great idea because it allows you to not only broach the task of acquiring recommendations, but you’re also able to get professional advice about where to apply. I (unknowingly) applied to one of my favorite professors’ alma mater, and when I told him about my acceptance he was totally ecstatic, saying that he could probably pull some strings and help me secure funding and even find a job and housing in the area (I wound up choosing a different school, but still, he was totally awesome).

If you decide to use a research or writing sample from a certain class, you could even approach the professor of that class and ask for very specific feedback on your assignment because you’re planning to use it in an application. Ask your mentor about how to write a statement of purpose. Ask about applying for scholarships.

I totally understand that it’s scary to approach busy professors. But ultimately, most want to help you and will give you their honest opinions and advice. In fact, there are professors in my old department who don’t even like me, but I still have awesome professional friendships with others by not getting discouraged. I would recommend that even the absolute shyest people try to ask for a little guidance from a professor (or even a graduate student or TA if that’s less intimidating) before beginning the application process. It’ll help to clear your head and you might walk out of their office with a few decisions made that you had been grappling with before.

HOW TO APPLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL POSTS:

“What You Give Is What You Get”: Majoring in English

usfclipartgIn less than a month, I’ll be receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in English. I started my upper-level English classes three years ago and now, fourteen literature classes (and a few creative writing classes) later, I’m ready to end my undergraduate education. Although I’ve already accepted an admissions offer from a Master’s program in English at another university, my future still seems pretty murky. I chose my major when I was very young (fifteen years old in fact, since I attended a collegiate high school) and even then I was well aware of the fact that this wasn’t an academic pursuit that would bring me money or fame. I’m glad that I made the decision to stay in a literature program rather than pursue the creative writing track, after suffering through creative writing classes that required rushed short stories and awkward peer review sessions. Although I learned quickly that creative writing is not my calling, I still wish that I had been more prepared for my literature program.

Let me just start by saying that I’m not really an “expert” on undergraduate education in English—I’m just a veteran, and someone who entered into this program at a pretty young age. I also find it important to acknowledge that every program is different and my “advice” stems from my experiences at a gigantic, mid-tier state school. I’ll be attending a much smaller private university for my Masters and therefore my little nuggets of advice might in fact do me, and anyone else who attends a smaller or private school, little good.

That being said, I still hope that my “advice” might help others get the most out of their undergraduate English programs. As I’ve written in the title, this isn’t really a “blow-off major” although others might sneer at its legitimacy as an academic pursuit, especially in a limping economy that prioritizes STEM graduates. As an English undergraduate, what you give is what you get, and if you’re willing to go above and beyond what your degree audit requires for graduation, I think you’ll really be doing yourself—and your curriculum vitae—a favor.

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